In a nod to racial justice, Va. votes to legalize pot

- John Bacon

Virginia stood poised to become the first Southern state to legalize marijuana after lawmakers approved a bill aimed in part at ending disparate treatment faced by people of color in the criminal justice system.

The bill, sent to Gov. Ralph Northam, would permit possession and retail sales of pot effective in 2024. Some lawmakers and advocacy groups, however, complained the waiting period needlessly extends unjust treatment. The bill drew a thumbsdown from the ACLU of Virginia.

“The Virginia General Assembly failed to legalize marijuana for racial justice,” the group said in a statement. “Lawmakers paid lip service to the communitie­s that have suffered decades of harm caused by the racist ‘War on Drugs’ with legislatio­n that falls short of equitable reform and delays justice.”

Northam’s spokeswoma­n, Alena Yarmosky, said the state has taken an important step toward legalizati­on.

“There’s still a lot of work ahead, but this bill will help to reinvest in our communitie­s and reduce inequities in our criminal justice system,” she said.

Last week New Jersey officially legalized recreation­al marijuana when Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law three bills putting into effect a ballot question overwhelmi­ngly supported by voters last year. More than a dozen states and the District of Columbia allow recreation­al marijuana use.

Last year, Virginia lawmakers decriminal­ized marijuana, making simple possession a civil penalty that can be punished by a fine of no more than $25. Lawmakers also ordered a commission to study and make recommenda­tions for how Virginia should legalize and regulate the growth, sale and possession of marijuana.

The commission focused on policies to redress historic inequities and racial injustice. The study, released in November, showed that from 2010–2019, the average arrest rate of Black people for marijuana possession was 3.5 times higher than the arrest rate for whites.

“I would say that we’re on the path to an equitable law allowing responsibl­e adults to use cannabis,” said Sen. Adam Ebbin, the chief sponsor of the Senate bill, after it was passed Saturday.

Sen. Jennifer McClellan expressed disappoint­ment that her proposed amendment to legalize possession on July 1 failed to make the final bill. The amendment would have ended punishment­s for people with small amounts of marijuana, but House Democrats argued that legalizati­on without a legal marketplac­e for marijuana could promote the growth of the black market.

McClellan said the state has a “long way to go to enact marijuana legalizati­on in an equitable way that redresses the harms of prohibitio­n on Black and brown communitie­s.”

“The bill we passed today moves the ball forward, but let’s be clear: This is not marijuana legalizati­on,” McClellan said. “It sets up a framework to get us on a path to legalizati­on in 2024.”

Under the legislatio­n, possession of up to an ounce of marijuana will become legal the same day sales begin and regulation­s will go into effect to control the marijuana marketplac­e. The legislatio­n will require a second vote from the General Assembly next year, but only on the regulatory framework and criminal penalties for several offenses.

 ?? GETTY IMAGES ?? A marijuana legalizati­on bill is headed to the governor’s desk.
GETTY IMAGES A marijuana legalizati­on bill is headed to the governor’s desk.
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